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Lucy is on the beach, and I am on the bike. That’s how we like it, and that is why the French Riviera is perfect for us. It has some of the finest beaches in the world, and the hinterland is a biker’s paradise with winding roads, scenic hilltop villages, and stunning views of the craggy coast. I have just passed Èze-Bord-de-Mer and turned onto the snaking climb up to Èze-Village when another rider pulls up to my side. He looks ancient, but his bike is as modern as they come: a sky-blue Bianchi carbon frame with a Campagnolo Super Record group set and Fulcrum Zero wheels. He is wearing a Castelli outfit, a Giro Atmos helmet, Giro Strade gloves, and Giro Techne shoes. I know the type. All money and no muscle. I will show him his place.
“Where are you headed?” I ask.
“I don’t know. La Turbie?”
“How about a race?”
“I’d rather not. I’m in it for the fun.”
That’s what they all say. It’s bullshit. “For the fun” is code for “out of shape.”
“If you insist.”
“On your mark. Ready, steady, go.”
I have barely said it when he pulls away from me like a flash of lightning. I shift down and get out of the saddle, but it’s hopeless. His legs are moving up and down like pistons in a race car engine. After less than a minute, he is out of sight. I’m stunned. He must be at least twice my age. I’m not a pro, but I’m in better shape than most people. How does he do it? I blame it on the bike. His Bianchi is probably half the weight of my clunky rental. When I finally reach La Turbie, I find him sitting outside the Café de la Fontaine in the sun, sipping espresso. I lean my bike against the wall next to his and join him at the table. It takes me a while to catch my breath.
“I’m Richard, by the way.”
We shake hands.
“So what’s your secret, Federico?”
He smiles and shrugs. “No secret. As I said, I ride for fun.”
“Will you join me on the way back?”
He shakes his head. “I think I’ll go on to Peille.”
Peille is way up in the mountains, past Col de Guerre and Col de Saint-Pancrace. Out of my league.
“Please don’t take this the wrong way, but how old are you?”
“I was born in 1928.”
I do the math. He is not twice, but more than three times my age.
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“In the Caribbean?”
He shakes his head. “In Spain. Near Toledo.”
This is when it dawns on me.
“And your name is Federico.”
“You have heard of me?”
“Are you kidding me? You are a legend.”
Unbelievable. The great Bahamontes. El Águila. The Eagle of Toledo. In the flesh. Winner of the Tour de France in 1959. Six-time winner of the mountain classification. The most celebrated climber in history. I had no idea he was still alive.
“It was nice to meet you, Richard.”
He puts some coins on the table and gets back on his bike. I watch him disappear around the bend towards Col de Guerre.
I head back to Nice and meet up with Lucy at Plage Neptune. Her skin smells of sun and salt. We share a bottle of white wine and the Poseidon seafood platter. Between the deep-fried squid and the roasted shrimps, I tell her the story of my defeat.
“He could be my grandfather,” I said.
“Your grandfather died before you were born.”
“That’s not the point.”
“You said he had a really nice bike.”
“He did, but who am I fooling? I’m sure he’d outrun me on a cargo bike.”
“Don’t beat yourself up about it. There is no shame in losing to a legend.”
That’s why I love Lucy. She always knows just what to say.